Pearl Oldfield succeeded her late husband, Democratic Whip William A. Oldfield, in the House of Representatives. During her tenure, Representative Oldfield sought to remedy the threats that natural disaster and economic depression posed to the livelihood and welfare of her rural Arkansas constituency. Though she had years of experience in Washington as the wife of a powerful politician, Oldfield left Congress after little more than one term, content to retire “to the sphere in which I believe women belong—the home.”1
Fannie Pearl Peden was born on December 2, 1876, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, one of five children born to J.A. Peden and Helen Hill Peden. The daughter of a prominent Southern family, Pearl Peden attended Arkansas College in Batesville. In 1901, she married William Allan Oldfield, a Spanish–American War veteran, lawyer, and district attorney for Izard County, Arkansas. William Oldfield was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1908 and went on to win election to 10 additional consecutive terms in Congress. Representative Oldfield served as Democratic Whip for eight years, from 1920 to 1928, and as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Committee from 1924 to 1928. He also attained the chairmanship of the Patents Committee and served on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. “Equivocation and compromise were not in his nature,” the Washington Post observed. “Party loyalty was his byword.” He also was considered a top prospect to head the Democratic National Committee, but he passed on the chance to stand for the post.2 During her husband’s House career, Pearl Oldfield lived with him in an apartment in northwest Washington, D.C., returning occasionally to their Arkansas home in Batesville. After Pearl Oldfield’s mother came to live with them in 1914, the Congressman’s wife stopped regular travel back to the district to provide for her mother’s health–care needs. In the 1920s, a fire destroyed the Oldfields’ Batesville home.3
William Oldfield had been in poor health since 1925, and the stress and strain of campaigning nationally for Democratic House candidates took its toll on him. Shortly after election day, on November 19, 1928, he passed away after surgery for gallstones.4 Less than a week later, local Arkansas Democratic Party leaders—seeking a temporary replacement until a candidate could be groomed to replace the powerful Congressman—asked his wife to run for his seat.5 Originally, leaders wanted Pearl Oldfield just to fill in the remaining four months on her husband’s term in the 70th Congress (1927–1929), set to expire in March 1929. They later asked her to campaign for the full term in the 71st Congress (1929–1931) to which her husband had just been elected. Pearl Oldfield agreed. “I am deeply appreciative of the good will shown toward Mr. Oldfield’s memory and the expression of confidence in me,” she told reporters.6 On December 8, 1928, the Arkansas Democratic central committee nominated Oldfield—which was tantamount to victory in the southern one–party system.7
In the early 20th century, Arkansas politics embodied “the one–party system in its most undefiled and undiluted form.” So dominant was the Democratic Party that elections revolved less around issues or political ideology than around petty rivalries, charismatic personalities, and raw emotions.8 Conservative Democrats commanded the political apparatus and on most major public policy issues differed little from Republican counterparts. Pearl Oldfield tapped into her husband’s influential political connections as well as public sympathy for her bereavement. On January 9, 1929, Oldfield won election without opposition to fill out the remaining months of his term in the 70th Congress. Voters also sent her to the 71st Congress against Independent candidate R.W. Tucker; turnout was light and surprisingly close, considering the Democratic endorsement of Oldfield. She defeated Tucker with fewer than 500 votes, 4,108 to 3,641 (53 to 47 percent). “I came back to the office to look after things because no one was here to keep things going,” Oldfield later said.9
Upon being sworn into office on January 11, 1929, Pearl Oldfield became the first woman from the South to serve in the House. In one of her first actions as a Representative, she expressed support for a $24 million appropriation to provide for federal departments’ funding of the enforcement of Prohibition laws. “I’m for that $24,000,000 and as much more as they ask for,” Congresswoman Oldfield told the New York Times. “I don’t want them to have any excuse for not carrying out the Prohibition enforcement program.”10 She did not receive committee assignments until the 71st Congress convened on March 4, 1929. As a member of the minority party (the GOP gained 32 seats in the House during the 1928 elections to further solidify their dominance in the Chamber), Oldfield received assignments on three committees: Coinage, Weights and Measures; Expenditures in the Executive Departments; and Public Buildings and Grounds.
“Miss Pearl,” as constituents affectionately called her, primarily tended to the needs of her district that covered large portions of northern and central Arkansas. She sponsored legislation to continue federal aid for the rehabilitation of farmland damaged by the severe Mississippi River floods of 1927. Unemployment caused by the Great Depression compounded the economic misery of residents from rural Arkansas. “I want to say that the situation is distressing and most grave with cold, sickness, and actual starvation present in many sections” of the district, Congresswoman Oldfield reported to colleagues in January 1931. Oldfield asked her House colleagues to approve a $15 million food appropriation to alleviate malnutrition in drought–affected areas where Red Cross relief efforts were inadequate to meet the demands for food. “Some Members object to passing the $15,000,000 appropriation for food. They call it the dole system,” Oldfield said. “Under ordinary conditions I also would oppose it, but under ordinary conditions Arkansans would not be compelled to make the appeal. But this is an extraordinary situation, and I feel that the end sought to be accomplished justifies any honorable means.”11 She also sponsored legislation to authorize the Arkansas Highway Commission to construct toll–free bridges across the Black River and White River in her district. She described herself as a district caretaker, fastidious about answering constituent mail and regularly attending floor debates. When Arkansas Congressman Otis Wingo passed away in 1930, Oldfield memorialized him on the House Floor as a family man and longtime friend.12 Several months later, she welcomed his widow, Effiegene Wingo, when she succeeded her husband in a special election. It marked the first time two women from the same state served simultaneously.
Ultimately, however, Oldfield spurned the limelight and preferred anonymity—claiming that she felt unable to govern without her husband’s counsel. Just months into her term, she announced she would not run for re–election in 1930. “I accepted the nomination believing I should serve only a few weeks…I announced my old–fashioned belief about women and the home, and that belief I still hold,” Oldfield admitted.13 She expressed her “traditional” views over the course of her term. “There are so many things a woman can do that a man can’t,” Oldfield remarked, in discussing her decision to leave Congress. “Why not do them and let the men do what they can?”14 Nevertheless, Congresswoman Oldfield understood that a younger generation of women would play a greater role in politics, and she encouraged them to do so with the admonition that they not make their gender a central consideration in weighing a public career.15
Oldfield retired from the House in March 1931, and though she often visited Batesville, she remained in the nation’s capital caring for her mother, who died in 1933. Although she had no children of her own, she looked forward to devoting herself to a niece and nephew in retirement, as well as to charitable causes “for children.” Pearl Peden Oldfield passed away in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 1962.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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